Winter in New York can be cruel like hate: icicles gather in Jake’s ’stache and Christopher is reduced to adulterating his bourbon with a hot mix of cider and spices. But all is not frigid, face-slapping cold: elsewhere in the world, in fabled California and monstrous Florida, it is citrus season. Which means, internetz, that it is time to make limoncello. This is fitting enough, because it is supposed to take about six months to mellow the harshness of freshly infused ’cello to that dense, thickly sweet and opaquely yellow roundness that saps the ache out of mid-August heat.
So. You should be making limoncello now. And also other macerated citrus cordials, because it’s as easy, more or less, as grating cheese and making a cup of coffee: remove the flavorful, colorful outer rind of a citrus fruit and steep it in a potent liquor until the alcohol has drawn off the oils. Strain out the fruit skins, combine with simple syrup, watch the mixture louche, then put it in your freezer for a while. Voila.
Because we’re interested in Science, Truth, Beauty, and the general improvement of the species, we’re undertaking an experiment, of sorts, into different methods of citrus-liqueur making: does it pay to adhere to tradition and peel lemons with a knife, or is it better—faster, easier, and less inclusive of the bitter pith—to use a microplane grater to zest your citrus? How much does aging improve the spirit? What is the ideal ratio of zest to spirit? What do various methods of sweetening add? These are pressing questions, and we are answering them, one at a time, with high-proof vodka and high-carbon steel.
Our first question: knife or zester? When people talk about making limoncello, most—if not all—caution against slicing too much of the pith into your booze. It’s supposed to impart unpleasant bitterness to your ’cellos, so you’re advised to keep it out. (Unpleasantly bitter? Impossible.) But if you’ve ever tried to peel a lemon with a knife, you know it is a major pain in the ass to remove the pith from your zest. Time consuming and impossible to do right.
But with a small grater, you can remove almost all the zest and keep it pulp free. With minimal effort. The increased surface area is supposed to speed along the maceration process, too. So why do people still suggest peeling the old fashioned way? Does it add a level of complexity that zest only ’cello lacks?
To find out, we made small batches of each type: the zest of five lemons in one cup of the devil’s own sweat, one-sixty proof vodka. Let them sit till they are done: you can tell because the zest becomes very brittle, or the peels become crisp, like potato chips. This takes about a week for the grated zest; the knife-skinned batch is still being sapped, two weeks on. In our experience, it takes about three to four.
We will report tasting notes very soon. In the meantime, we’re making a lot of fitzgeralds with all our new, fresh squeezed lemon juice.